The Wright Stuff: Dirtbagging Is Dead

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Leo Houlding on Heart Ledges with Tom Morrow.

Sound the alarm! We are on the brink of a great tragedy. Climbing has a dying breed in its ranks, a breed upon which the very foundation of our sport was built: the dirtbag. The golden age of climbing is replete with these anti-heroes: Pratt, Chouinard, and Beckey are our dirtier, more destitute Magic, Bird, and Jordan. But now it would seem dirtbag culture is on the brink of extinction; perhaps destined to go the way of the swami belt or the figure eight belay device.

Many climbers may not even know what a “dirtbag” is, let alone a swami belt, and this is part of the problem. There are some strong, psyched, and promising young climbers who learned or are learning to climb in one of the 889 gyms in America, who might check Webster’s for the word dirtbag and find this: “A dirty, unkempt, or contemptible person.” Arguably, aspects of this short explanation might be true, but here’s a better and more accurate take from Urban Dictionary: “A person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle. Dirtbags can be distinguished from ‘hippies’ by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for living communally and generally non-hygienically; dirtbags seek to spend all of their moments climbing.”

When I started climbing at 21, my mentor Sean “Stanley” Leary, who was already an accomplished climber and dirtbag, told me outlandish stories of Yosemite Valley, a mecca not just for climbing, but for dirtbagging, a place where the best climbers lived in their cars (or in caves!), survived on next to nothing, and climbed full-time. Full-time! A seed was planted.

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Rest day in El Cap Meadow.

When I arrived in Yosemite, I was warmly welcomed into a close-knit counter-culture with its own values, slang, and lifestyle. There was “The Center of the Universe,” a glorious asphalt slab where the rangers, or “tool” as we called them, looked the other way and allowed climbers to camp in their cars (today it’s a tourist bus lot). If you needed a partner or were feeling social, there would always be a colorful mix of characters in “The Center.” Over time, we began to refer to ourselves as “The Rock Monkeys,” and in retrospect, we were a true force in the history of Yosemite climbing.

First ascents were made, speed records were broken, and climbing gods were born and lived in that dirtbag bastion! I don’t think many of those epic feats would have been possible without the unlimited climbing our alternative lifestyle provided.

And then, as the 2000s rolled in, things started to change in small, but measurable, increments. Rangers began harassing car campers in The Center. Dirtbags were getting busted and ticketed in their secret caves, so they scurried to every corner of the Valley. We would still meet at the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria for coffee or in El Cap Meadow to smoke weed, but without The Center, our sense of community was increasingly splintered. Even Camp 4 was a no-go with its more and more strictly enforced two-week camping limit. As years went by, and in spite of increasing ranger-induced challenges, I continued to spend most of the year lurking in Yosemite. There was the occasional new dirtbag on the scene, but it was clear that the party was losing steam.

It’s sad; I learned so much as a dirtbag. Toiling on epic in-a-day ascents of El Cap gave me a tremendous work ethic. Living a simple life in the dirt in such a beautiful place inspired a deep love and respect for the natural world. With little money ever to my name, I learned the value of thrift and conservation. While now, I do have more than a thousand dollars in my bank account and an actual roof over my head, I still live life by the dirtbag ethos that collecting experiences is more important than amassing wealth and material objects. I hope Yosemite’s waning dirtbag population isn’t the canary in the coal mine.

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Mikey Schaefer on the road in Kentucky in fellow pro climber Matt Segal’s van.

I believe the dirtbag’s long goodbye has a variety of causes. Gas, food, and camping are more expensive every year. Authorities continue to crack down on climbers seeking to live and camp for free. For example, the dirtbag scene in Joshua Tree took a big hit when camping fees and stay limits were introduced at Hidden Valley Campground, where Stonemaster legends like Lynn Hill, John Bachar, and John Long honed their craft in years past.

And then there’s the change in venue of where most modern climbers pick up the sport. The majority of climbers now learn in gyms, disconnected from climbing history. To be clear, I’m not bagging on gyms. Heck, I’ve never been stronger than I am now, living in Boulder and climbing in one regularly, but I do hope that we can connect the gym culture to the deeper thread of climbing history. It’s easy to have respect for your forefathers when you literally walk in their footsteps. In Yosemite, giants like Chuck Pratt, Warren Harding, and Royal Robbins spent chunks of their lives sleeping in the dirt and putting up iconic first ascents on El Cap and Half Dome.

Now you can climb 5.13 without ever going outside. You don’t necessarily need to dedicate your entire life to climbing to get really strong, especially as the majority of climbers turn to bouldering and sport climbing. You don’t learn dirtbag culture in the climbing gym, and it seems that some of the environmental ethics and etiquette that are part and parcel of dirtbagging are getting lost as well.

The Internet has changed the way people climb, too. “You don’t have to hang out in Camp 4 to find partners any more,” my friend and dirtbag stalwart James Lucas half-jokes, “You can go on Mountain Project and find beta and a partner for any climb you want to do!” In an era where many people’s social lives and community exist wholly in the virtual world, climbing is suffering from the same over-arching problem.

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Ivo Ninov by El Cap Bridge cleaning cams before setting the speed record on Native Son (5.9 A4) on El Cap, with Ammon McNeely.

Modern culture as a whole is also becoming increasingly materialistic, and being broke and living in your car is just becoming less cool, even for climbers. It’s harder than ever to drop out of the rat race.

End rant. I’ll stop whining and outline something to feel optimistic about. Social norms have a way of ebbing and flowing. Dirtbagging hasn’t flatlined just yet, and the beauty and passion that so many of us find in climbing may be enough to draw in the next generation. That’s where I hope to make a difference. I’m not here to say that every climber should quit their job and move to Yosemite, or start sleeping in their Saturn wagon, but I am here to say that it can change your life.

Consider Alex Honnold. He learned to climb in a gym in Sacramento, and somehow found his way to Yosemite where he dirtbagged in proud style. Slowly but surely, he became one of the greatest climbers the world has ever seen; his simple, meager existence allowed him the time to perfect his big wall skills. The Nose speed record and Half Dome free-solo are only a couple on his endless tick list of notable achievements. I can say confidently that Alex’s life would look a lot different if he hadn’t dropped out of college and made that leap of faith to live in his van and follow his dreams.

Do you have a deferred climbing dream? Do you have a crappy job that makes you miserable? Do you have fantasies of climbing rock every day? Is the only time you find joy and passion in your life when the weekend rolls around and you get to hit the rock? Then you might have what it takes to keep the dirtbag dream alive. Maybe this beautiful, unruly thing has some life in it yet. //

Video: Watch Cedar Wright's short documentary The Last Dirtbag

Cedar Wright is a professional climber and contributing editor for Climbing. He still only showers about once a week or so.